By JUSTIN PRITCHARD
LOS ANGELES (AP) - Drivers at one passenger bus company routinely worked more than 800 miles without rest. Maintenance at another company was so shoddy that one bus drove despite glaring evidence of brake problems.
Federal bus safety regulators said Thursday they shut down those two and 50 other motor coach companies in a major nationwide crackdown on unsafe outfits.
The 52 companies aren't just low-cost, fly-by-night carriers - some have transported school bands, Boy Scouts or senior citizens, according to Anne S. Ferro, administrator of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.
Overall, the motor coach industry carries about 700 million passengers a year in the U.S., roughly the same as domestic airlines.
In April, the agency began scrutinizing 250 companies with poor safety records out of the approximately 4,000 interstate bus lines it regulates. "Operation Quick Strike" came partly in response to major crashes of carriers that, despite dismal safety records, the agency allowed to continue operating.
The agency said that for the campaign, it trained more than 50 inspectors to look more closely at motor coach companies. As a result, investigations that in the past might have been done in a few days in some cases took a few weeks.
The 52 companies that were shut down "put safety by the wayside in order to compete in a very tight market," Ferro said. Three companies have been allowed to reopen after making improvements, her agency said. Several other companies told The Associated Press that they were in that process.
The agency said that of more than 1,300 buses inspected, 340 were taken off the road at least temporarily.
Just one of the companies - Kansas-based Midnight Express LLC - was shut down following a death. A representative of Midnight Express could not be reached for comment.
The other companies were closed for safety problems, including company wide failures of maintenance and violations of "hours-of-service" rules that limit how long a driver can work without a break.
Drivers for Salt Lake Shuttles of Utah, for example, routinely worked the more than 800-mile round trip between Salt Lake City and Las Vegas without required rest, the agency said; Illini Tours of Illinois kept running one bus for several days while a warning light indicated problems with the anti-lock braking system.
The owner of Illini Tours, Robert Frazier, said in a telephone interview that he has fixed all the issues raised in the inspections and applied to reopen.
He acknowledged that his buses had problems, but said he didn't believe they were serious enough to put him out of business and felt his company was targeted unfairly by regulators reacting to public pressure for action in response to a series of crashes.
"We're just too small and too undercapitalized to handle such a large assault by the federal government," he said.
The owner of Salt Lake Shuttles, Jesus Leal, said in a telephone interview that he had been paying another company to rectify his problems with the government, but the company stopped taking his calls.
"I want to solve this," Leal said. "I want to reopen with a better team."
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration released the inspection results about a month after another agency within the U.S. Department of Transportation faulted it for failing to crack down on tour bus and truck companies whose vehicles later crashed, killing 25 people. Inspectors had flagged the companies for serious safety violations before the crashes but allowed them to stay in business.
Ferro acknowledged that crashes in the mountains east of Los Angeles and in Oregon cited by the National Transportation Safety Board amounted to a wake up call for her agency. "We might not have been catching all the elements" that a more in-depth inspection could, she said.
The largest motor coach industry association said it supported the crackdown.
"A disproportionate number of companies that run illegally are the real problem," said Dan Ronan, spokesman for the American Bus Association. None of the shuttered companies was an association member, he said.
Contact Justin Pritchard at http://www.twitter.com/lalanewsman .